Let’s cut right to it: you shouldn’t use fabric softeners. They’re bad for your clothes (especially athletic wear, which we’ll get into), your health, and the environment. It’s just not worth it!
Fabric softeners became popular in the mid-1900s because the dyes, detergents, and dryers were harsh on clothes, making them rough and scratchy. However, with better technology, fabrics, and laundry products, fabric softeners are no longer necessary, yet are still very commonly used and most people don’t think twice about it.
How fabric softeners and dryer sheets work
Fabric softeners typically come in 2 different forms: a liquid used in the washing machine or a coated sheet used in the dryer. They are designed to prevent static, help with wrinkles, add a scent, and make the materials feel softer. They do this by covering the fabric in a thin, lubricating film. This coating prevents static by making the garments slippery to reduce friction, and the softener adds a positive charge to neutralise the negative static charge. It also helps to separate the fibres, making things like towels fluffier. Additionally, they are typically scented and designed so the scent will remain in the fabric. Sounds nice, so what’s the problem?
Why are fabric softeners bad for your clothes?
You might have noticed on some tags, especially with performance clothing, they specifically say NOT to use fabric softeners. This is because the waxy coating can interfere with moisture-wicking and absorption properties. Athletic fabrics are designed to wick moisture from your skin to the outside of the fabric, where it can evaporate, but if you cover the fabric in a waxy coating it’s like plugging up a drinking straw and blocks the ability to move moisture. The coating also builds up over time, making it harder for water and detergent to permeate the fabric, so odours and stains are more difficult to get out and become sealed in.
I get questions about why workout clothes can still have a smell even after washing, and my first response is always to ask if the person uses fabric softeners or dryer sheets, which is almost always the problem.
Although the fabrics might feel extra soft and nice at first, this buildup of fatty film overtime makes fabrics less absorbent. This is especially a problem with towels, which obviously need to absorb a lot of moisture, as well as bed linens and underwear/base-layers which absorb sweat for comfort.
Fabric softeners can also stain your clothes. Liquid softeners can occasionally leave bluish or grey stain spots on garments, and overtime the waxy buildup can also cause yellowing on whites.
Finally, they can leave residue in your machines — which isn’t good for the machines — and also means you can get fabric softener residue on clothes even when you’re not using it in that load.
They’re also not particularly safe…
One of the biggest issues with fabric softeners is that they contain “fragrance,” a substance or mix of substances — natural or synthetic — that imparts a scent. The ingredients of fragrance don’t have to be disclosed, and there’s the potential they can contain allergens and toxic ingredients such as carcinogens, neurotoxicants and reproductive toxins. Transparency is an issue with cleaning products in general. In some countries like Canada and the United States, the ingredients of cleaning products don’t have to be completely disclosed, so it’s not just what’s in the fragrance that is a mystery.
A major ingredient in a lot of fabric softeners is Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QACs or “quats”), which ease static but can cause skin and respiratory irritation. Studies of medical professionals who used cleaning products with quats, which are also anti-bacterial, found an increase in asthma in those who were regularly exposed to them. The widespread use of quats in household products is also linked to the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In addition, studies have found that liquid fabric softeners can actually make fabrics more flammable, which no one wants.
For the environment
QACs don’t easily biodegrade, especially in water, and can be toxic to aquatic organisms such as fish and algae. This is obviously extra worrisome, since as a laundry product they go directly into our water systems.
Fabric softeners can contain petroleum or palm-oil-derived ingredients. They also might not be cruelty-free or vegan — an ingredient found in some fabric softeners is dihydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride, which is derived from animal fat.
I also wonder if the coating and synthetic compounds in fabric softeners affect the biodegradability of clothing but haven’t been able to find any studies on it.
What are some fabric softener alternatives?
Air-dry your clothes — it helps reduce static. I also really encourage air-drying because it saves a lot of energy (and money) and really increases the longevity of your clothes. There’s less wear-and-tear, colour fading, and shrinkage from heat. Plus, dryers break down spandex/elastane faster, causing your clothes to become misshapen, and they cause microscopic damage to the fabric. Just look in the lint tray — those are all fibres that have been broken off or pulled from the fabric! Air-dried clothes will definitely feel less soft than using a dryer, especially if you’re used to fabric softeners, but you can try putting them in the dryer for just a few minutes to fluff them up if that’s a problem.
If you NEED to use a dryer, wool dryer balls can not only help soften your clothes but also cut down on drying time, which saves energy. I’ve also heard of people adding essential oils to their dryer balls for some scent, but make sure you don’t use too much and stain your clothes, and use oils that are okay with heat. The dryer balls can also help with static.
Don’t over-dry your clothes, because the dryness is what causes static, so taking clothes out when they’ve just dried will really help reduce static.
Synthetic fabrics tend to be the ones with major static issues, so keeping your natural and synthetic garments separate helps with static, as fluffy natural fibres rubbing against the synthetics builds up static charge. It’s also a great idea to wash your synthetics in a Guppyfriend Bag, which not only keeps them from rubbing against your other clothes but also catches the plastic microfibres they release into the water.
Another option I hear a lot about is adding a quarter or half cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle as a natural fabric softener (although be sure not to use with bleach). Again, I’ve never found the need for my clothes to be softer but if you’ve tried this I’d be interested in how it works!
As with any changes it takes some time to adjust, but everyone I know who has stopped using fabric softeners said they were just doing it out of habit or thought you were “supposed to,” and having stopped won’t ever go back.
Can you remove fabric softener already in clothes?
I tried a few things on my secondhand leggings which were full of fabric softener:
- I washed them a couple times but this didn’t do much.
- I tried soaking them in water and castile soap for a few hours and this definitely made an impact, although I could still smell the fabric softener.
- The most recent thing I’ve tried is soaking them in some vinegar and water. This also seemed to help a bit, but the smell is still faintly there.
- I’ve also been hanging them up on a drying rack to air out as much as possible.
While I have gotten rid of most of the smell (and it doesn’t give me a headache anymore just wearing them) it’s difficult to say if I’m only removing the fragrance or the actual fabric softener coating. The leggings still have a slightly waxy feel to them but it’s hard to gauge if any progress has been made. Hopefully as I keep wearing and washing them I can get rid of more of the softener but I don’t know if they’ll ever be back to the way they were originally.
If you have any other tips or suggestions for removing fabric softener please leave them in the comments!
Updated Jan 19, 2022